Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The art of obfuscation

Having a voice, an audience, a platform is a privilege not afforded to many. Those who are afforded this luxury wield power, a control over the flow and dissemination of information & narratives. Those that abuse this power to spread misinformation & propagate false narratives represent a particularly strenuous curse. This is because (i) the large scale & brisk consumption of media today makes the damage they do often irreparable and quite substantial (ii) there’s no way to take that power away from them.

So I am going to try to educate whoever reads this on how writers obfuscate and distort the issues in order to propagate false narratives. Particular attention is to be paid to illegitimate, false arguments, or fallacies, that are used to achieve this end. Since Babar Sattar has welcomed criticism of his piece “A perfect heist” -a commentary on the SC probe faced by Sharif family- we can use it as sort of a case study.

Having followed Sattar’s work for a while, I have noticed a tendency to invoke the middle ground fallacy almost as if it were a doctrine. This is not a surprise, writers who put extra emphasis on appearing detached & clear-headed often fall prey to, or make use of, the middle ground fallacy. It has also been a preferred method of obfuscation for media whenever the ruling family runs into legal trouble. The middle ground fallacy, or the argument to moderation, is the tendency to believe/contend that the extreme arguments in any debate are always wrong, that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle”. Of course that is not the case. The argument supported by the facts, no matter how extreme, is where the truth lies.

We see this in the article in question as the agenda is set in the opening para:

Is the explanation presented by the Sharifs regarding ownership of the London flats believable or plausible? The answer depends on what you already believe.”

The implication is that the evidence for the extreme positions is insufficient, the one extreme being that the Sharifs’ explanation is not true, the other that it is. By the end of the article, the author will grant the Sharif argument plausibility, but hold off deeming it true. That is the key to this method of obfuscation; it presents a false compromise, a status quo. The status quo, obviously, supports the ones in power.

The facts though do not support the status quo, they support the extreme position; the explanation of the ruling family regarding ownership of London flats is not believable – more on that later. So to create enough confusion regarding this, Mr Sattar lends credence to claims that have none, sometimes passing them off as facts, employs more logical fallacies and in the process presents a distorted picture of the case.

Deconstructing all of it is impermissible due to space constraints, but looking at key passages should be informative still. Most telling is the passage justifying the main question; ownership of the flats, or the Al Thani letter story:

In an interview oft played by the media since the Panama leaks, Hassan Nawaz said that the flats were rented. We now see the mention of ‘ground rent and service charges’ paid by the Sharifs in the Al Thani affidavit and the response filed by Sharif siblings. As no money was paid to the Al Thani family, there is no money trail to be established and no laundered money to be justified. The only question that remains is that of truthful declarations and valid documents.”

This is a classic example of the cherry picking fallacy, or the suppressed evidence fallacy, employed at leisure by Mr Sattar. What this means is that there is a body of evidence available, but the author only cites the evidence that supports the argument he wants to forward, and omits all of the evidence that counters it. The Sharif family has made a number of statements about the properties in question. One of Kulsoom Nawaz states that the flats were bought, not rented, before 2000. One by Maryam Nawaz states that the flats have never been owned by the family at any time. The one by Hussain says they were bought around 2006 and money was transferred officially to Britain from Saudi Arabia, not to Qatar or the Al Thani family. Majority, if not every single facet, of the Al Thani story is contradicted by every statement of every member of the Sharif family. The Supreme Court noted that even the Prime Minister’s statements are contradicted by the letter presented before them.

The author does not notice the contradictions because he is employing the suppressed evidence technique; picking the one statement that, he contends, supports the Al Thani story. Just that it does not. Here he uses the “contextomy” fallacy. This is to say that the reference quoted does not actually support the argument made, just the context is removed to make it sound like it does. The “Ground rent” mentioned in the Al Thani letter refers to an annual token rent paid on leased land in the UK, such as the one the properties in question are built upon. In the interview Mr Sattar has referenced, Hassan Nawaz states that quarterly “rent” not ground rent, is paid for the flats to the owners and the money comes from Pakistan. If that interview were to be believed there must be quarterly payments to Al Thani family from Pakistan; the interview contradicts the Al Thani statement and actually establishes that there is a money trail, from Pakistan no less.

Still more distortion is on the way. Let’s look at a troubling passage which Mr Sattar uses to draw his conclusion:

Each piece of the Sharif story, seen in isolation, is plausible. Could Mian Sharif have invested AED12 million in the Al Thani real-estate business? People make minority co-investments on the basis of trust without written formalities all the time. Do business families settle investments and make payouts on the basis of profits and mutual understanding? Sure they do. Can grandparents nominate a favoured grandchild to inherit a particular asset or property? Yes. Are such transactions illegal or invalid if not reduced to writing? No.

Plausible or not, does the story sound truthful? That depends on what side you are on.”

Mr Sattar is answering questions no one has ever asked. Nature of family investments, profit sharing, inheritance? These have nothing to do with the case at hand, which revolves around, in Sattar’s own words, “ownership of the flats, declaration of ownership, source of funds for the acquisition and money trail”. It’s as if he’s using the straw man fallacy on himself. 

On the questions identified as key ones by the author, the answers are pretty clear. The Sharifs have not provided a money trail, they have not provided evidence to refute the documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca and there is evidence, in the form of a UK court ruling, crediting them with the ownership of Park Lane properties before 2006. The UK court ruling refers to the Al Tawfik case & is the most critical piece of evidence suppressed by Mr Sattar.

The most bizarre type of reasoning in the article is saved for the defence of Maryam Nawaz. Have a read:

Maryam says she is the trustee and not the owner of the offshore companies that own the flats. The allegation against her rests on letters in which the law firm representing the offshore companies identify her as beneficial owner to a foreign investigation agency. But to refute the allegation, the Sharifs have produced before the SC a trust deed executed by Maryam and Hussain (witnessed and verified by a London attorney in February 2006), where Maryam agrees to hold 49 shares of Coomber Group Inc on trust for Hussain.

Each piece of the Sharif story, seen in isolation, is plausible.”

Maryam is listed as sole beneficial owner of the firms Nielsen & Nescoll who in turn hold the Park Lane properties. The omission here is that letters identifying Maryam as owner of Nescoll & Nielsen mention that Mossack Fonseca were unaware of any trust associated with them. The tremendous error in logic here though is this: COOMBER GROUP INC is not NESCOLL or NIELSEN. You cannot refute allegations regarding the latter two with a document regarding the former.

I do not know what this kind of reasoning is called because I have never seen anyone over the age of 5 employ it. It is like somebody tells you that the milk has turned sour, so you take a bite of the apple and say “it seems fine to me”. It is not fine. This is not how it works. This is not how anything works. The apple does not represent the milk, because it is the apple; the milk is the milk. The apple can only represent the apple. I don’t know how this can be confused.

The apple & the milk are different, they are not the same.

Okay then. On to the conclusion where Mr Sattar states that the “buyer”, i.e. the Sharifs and the “seller”, i.e. the Al Thani family, presently have the same story. Right? Wrong. Wrong. Not right. The Al Thani family is not the seller. There is zero evidence to establish that they were ever owners of the Park Lane flats. If they provide the court with purchase deeds, that would help.

That has not happened though. Nothing the Sharifs claim is backed by proof, it is contradicted by their statements and it is refuted by documentation. Yet the reader will leave Babar Sattar’s column with a very different impression. This is the art of the wordsmith. To just subtly pass on claim as fact, shroud what is fact & put into question what is established, all in a seemingly articulate, coherent manner. This is the art of obfuscation.

To recap: Babar Sattar’s assertions are just plain false not because of what you already believe, or what side you are on, but because of the facts relevant to them.

On ownership; the Sharif position is not supported by any documentary evidence and negated by UK court judgment.

On date of purchase; the Sharif position is not supported by any documentary evidence and negated by UK court judgement.

On Maryam’s status as trustee, in turn need for declaration; the Sharif position is not supported by any documentary evidence and negated by documents leaked in the Panama papers.

Oh, and the Sharif position on all questions is proved false by previous statements from every member of the family.

These are the facts. There is no middle ground here.





P.S:

The false arguments pointed out here can be intentionally designed or, for the most part, an unintentional product of inherent bias. I have taken the view that they are a result of intentional design because of (i) my inherent bias/suspicion of the media (ii) the sheer number of them.

If Mr Sattar were to argue that he is so incompetent as to not be able to do basic research for an article, do a google search, or tell that this grouping of alphabets “COOMBER” is different from this one “NESCOLL” I will concede that I have taken an incorrect view and respectfully apologize. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Media Matters

During the height of the last dharna, former Election Commission of Pakistan Additional Secretary Afzal Khan made an appearance on TV & seemed to endorse the allegations of the opposition. The fallout from his remarks wasn’t only confined to TV screens or newspaper columns, it also played out on social media.

The most memorable, if one can call it that, reaction to Afzal Khan’s statement came from journalist & anchor Nusrat Javed. Nusrat took to twitter in an excessively abusive diatribe, even for him. His remarks can most decently be summarised into this: Afzal Khan was a “gay sex” addict, who performed acts of said gay sex in the Islamabad press club, and Nusrat used to watch.

Even the best of us lose our cool in moments of anger, anguish, disappointment etc. and are prone to outbursts we would later regret. This moment stood out not only because Nusrat insisted he was of sound mind, but also because of what it came as a reaction to.

Nusrat, one of the most seasoned journalists in the country, did not lose his cool when the government shot 100 people in broad daylight. Nor did the outburst come when a CM, sworn to protect his citizens, promised to send “truckloads of tissues” in the wake of a massacre. It came when a former government employee piled on more pressure on the ruling family.

The incident has been retold to highlight two things. One is that while journalists often rightly complain about abuse they have to deal with on social media, they partake in it more often than they would have you believe. Second is the sense among many opposition supporters and third party observers that large sections of the media are partial towards the government.

As the opposition headed to Islamabad again, tensions between journalists and opposition supporters on social media became apparent once more. The last sentence is the problem, why should a showdown between the government and the opposition translate into one between large sections of the press and supporters of the opposition?

The media’s explanation of why that is the case was put forward just the other day by an anchor on Capital TV when he described the opposition as “fascist”. Even when opposition supporters were literally being picked up by the state from their homes, this is a view that held sway among many of his colleagues.

What’s the other explanation? .. Nusrat Javed. 

Like the rest of us, journalists find it harder to hide their biases on social media, which is why the divisions are so clear in that medium. However, anyone paying a little attention to what gets said or written in the press can pinpoint how this partiality has translated into their work.

Consider how violence is covered. The government has a long record now of extremely violent suppression of political opponents. It ranges from entering opposition compounds and killing political opponents by firing at them to entering private halls and hitting pol workers with batons. The opposition’s “violence” ranges from entering a government building to gathering in large numbers in the so called red zone. Yet the government’s actions are often described as “mistakes”, “rash”, “strong arm”, while the opposition is allocated “attack”, “siege” & “invasion”.

Not only is the coverage lenient towards the government’s propensity to kill, the whole narrative is dangerously similar to that of the government. For example, the last DAWN editorial on “economic costs” of protest wouldn’t be out of place if it were released by Ishaq Dar’s office. Almost every point made by the newspaper is one the Finance Minister has pleaded in the past; the stock market shock, the need for a steady ship, the confidence of investors. Tellingly, even the onus to prevent government’s draconian act of confiscating containers and using them to block the arteries of the state, is put on the opposition.

An editor in this newspaper wrote a charge sheet against the opposition a few days before the recent government crackdown started. Following are some of the points he made that are verbatim what Rana Sana, probably the most confrontationist minister in the government, regurgitates regularly:

The opposition wants to lay “siege” to the capital. The opposition leader is “non-democratic” and is “delegitimizing” state institutions. The opposition wants to run through government like a “medieval army”. I could go on.

If history is any indication, the words of this section of the press would have become even more visceral than the government’s if the planned November 2 showdown had taken place. Good citation for said indication is one Kamran Shafi, a columnist for DAWN & Express Tribune, who in 2014 represented little more than a microphone for the vilest of government propaganda. In one memorable, again if one can call it that, episode, Shafi remarked that women go to opposition protests to perform “mujra” and men go to watch it. He then shared a video made by ruling party supporters saying we go to the “dharna” because you can grab a girl and disappear in a container, or in the greenbelts. He was made an ambassador by the government not long after.

Shafi is one of many. An ever increasing number of journalists now appear to be formalizing ties with the government through caretaker positions, government posts etc. They include Muhammad Malick, Absar Alam, Iftikhar Ahmed, Arif Nizami, Najam Sethi, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi & Irfan Siddiqui. Mushtaq Minhas, recently made a ruling party minister, served for years in the executive committee of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists & was the secretary of the Islamabad/Pindi Press club. Clearly the rot is deep.

These appointments are beyond the money government pours into media houses in the form of adverts; Rs 450 million was the bill during 2014 protests. How bad exactly is it? Even Hamid Mir admitted the other day that the reason for government’s confidence is that they believe they have 3 media houses in their pocket.

It is hard to quantify how much influence is bought through these tactics, but the infestation in Pakistani journalism is hard to ignore. At present, many news outlets just serve as avenues for hit jobs, and the opposition isn’t the only target.

Earlier this year the Friday Times, the paper run by Najam Sethi, launched an astonishing attack on an under-age rape victim. Granted that Sethi has been awarded one favour after the other by the ruling party, there was still something shocking about the way he went after a girl just 15 years old and maligned her character after she suffered the heinous crime at the hands of a ruling party office bearer.

Yet while social media saw a huge outcry over his appalling conduct, journalists, barring some women, closed ranks around Sethi. Not much, if any, of the criticism of his attack on a rape victim made it to mainstream media.

Which represents the second part of what ails journalism in this country.  The interconnectedness, patronage, friendships and favours that run in the industry give journalists a carte blanche to abuse their considerable power, without the threat of any scrutiny of their actions.   

Again Sethi provides an obvious example. In 2014 some women playing for Multan Cricket Club had accused the admin of harassment. Anchor Imran Khan of Express News covered the issue. Najam Sethi, who’s been made overlord for all cricket in the country for some reason, simply told the anchor in question to cut it out. The TV host stopped after assurance by Sethi that he would protect the girls and reinstate them. Instead Sethi left the girls at the mercy of the officials they had complained against. One of them, a 17 year old by the name of Halima, committed suicide.

No journalist I know has questioned Sethi over his role, and I don’t believe many I don’t know did either. The nature of their profession means that any criticism from the outside will always be met with a hint of scepticism, called intolerant or even viewed as an effort to suppress speech. Which is all the more reason that journalists question one another & call out the abysmal abuse of their power.


Fool’s dream. 
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